Theatre Review: Measure For Measure, Shakespeare’s Globe

Dominic Rowan as Duke Vincentio in his Friar disguise and Brendan O'Hea as Lucio in the Globe's Measure for Measure

Dominic Rowan as Duke Vincentio in his Friar disguise and Brendan O’Hea as Lucio in the Globe’s Measure for Measure

A breezy performance of Shakespeare’s notorious problem play on a hot summer’s day

There are few places I’d rather be on a hot Sunday afternoon that Shakespeare’s Globe. Sure, it’s one part tourist attraction, one part theatre, but that’s partly what makes it such a thrilling place to be. People come here from all over the world to watch a play they may not understand. And everyone loves it, especially the cast who always looks like they’re having the best time even when scowling at helicopters and sweating in their polyester doublets.

In an era of spectacular sets and elaborate immersive theatrical experiences, there’s a real thrill to watching very good actors, dressed in what look like costumes from the RSC reject box, on a bare stage performing works first played on this very spot 500 hundreds years ago. But despite being on the tourist trail, and retreading a London of half a millennium ago, there’s nothing of the museum about the Globe. It pulses with more life than many other London theatres,  and feels fresher than a lot of them too.

There is often something of the pantomime about Globe performances (and I don’t mean that as a criticism) and Measure For Measure, artistic director Dominic Dromgoole’s swansong for the Globe, is no exception.

Measure For Measure is one of Shakespeare’s problem play. Not only does it not fall neatly into the comedy bracket it’s assigned to, but the plot is nuts. For those that don’t know *Sparknotes klaxon* Duke Vincentio, fed up with the debauchery  in his city of Vienna pretends to leave town (he actually temporarily dresses as a Friar to watch the town’s antics in disguise. Because, Shakespeare)  and leaves his very uptight deputy, Angelo in charge. Angelo is not standing for any of this naughty nonsense and immediately stamps his authority by sentencing Claudio, a young man who has got his girlfriend Juliet pregnant, to death. *Gasp*.

Claudio’s sister, Isabella, is unrelentingly virtuous and pretty – as Vincentio as the Friar observes, “the hand that hath made you fair hath made you good” – a combination that Angelo can’t resist. He promises to release Claudio if Isabella gives up her virginity to him. But, fear not, the Duke/Friar is on hand to hatch a cunning plan which won’t involve Isabella having to sleep with Angelo nor Claudio dying.

Alongside the WTF plot and the dark vein of cynicism that Shakespearean spins through the text, Measure for Measure is a study of patriarchal authority, of male manipulation in a world where women are a commodity, useful only for their bodies which, if they are not going to offer up to men at a price, will have to be blackmailed into it. Obviously this was largely how women were viewed in the early 17th century, and indeed are all too commonly seen today, but it can be uneasy viewing at times.

Dromgoole neatly sidesteps the play’s bigger issues without being flippant and pulls off a great production with plenty of proper hearty laughs (rather than smug English grad Shakespeare guffaws). And there is a happy ending of sorts (although, honestly, if Dominic Rowan as Duke Vincentio/the Friar wasn’t so charming, I would join the rest of the world in not filing this ending under ‘happy’).

Rowan’s Duke/Friar is a delight among a cast not short on great performances. Globe regular, Brendan O’Hea, who plays flamboyant Lucio, threatens to steal the show, but is given a run for his money by a quick-witted Trevor Fox as Pompey (full marks for the improv when catching a groundling reading the text) and Mariah Gale as an emotional and compassionate Isabella (a tricky feat in a character so defined by her religious doctrine).

All tremendous fun, if not one of the problem play purists (if such a thing exists).

Measure For Measure | Shakespeare’s Globe | Until 17 October 2015

Theatre Review: Coriolanus, Donmar Warehouse; Ellen Terry with Eileen Atkins, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse

Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse

The hottest tickets in London town for the past few months have been for plays written by a man who has been dead for over four hundred years.

Of course it helps that most of these sold out, selling-on-eBay-for-£2000-a-pop shows feature handsome famous men taking on some of Shakespeare’s meatiest roles (although even David Tennant in his now ended run at the Barbican may have struggled to make soppy sap Richard II meaty). But whether it’s prose or pecs drawing the crowds and winning the critics, there’s no denying the pull of Will.

My weekend was bookended by two very different Shakespeare productions. The first was the much talked about Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse starring the much talked about Tom Hiddleston. Since beginning its run in December it’s has had some quarters in such a tizz that people have been prepared to spend a huge amounts of farthings for a ticket for this sold out run.

There’s not a lot I can add to the chorus of Coriolanus praise; it’s every bit as powerful, thrilling and exciting as the critics have said. It’s a physical, visceral, brutal production that also has moments of reflection and humour. It’s stark simplicity and the almost post-apocalyptic feel of the set and costumes reminded me of the Trafalgar Studios production of Macbeth last year, although Hiddleston’s Coriolanus is a far greater force than James McAvoy‘s rather lacklustre Scottish murderer.

Hiddleston could stand on stage in the humble smock he’s forced to wear after Caius’ one-man victory in Coriolis and still emit a room-captivating magnetism. But he doesn’t rest on his charismatic laurels, giving us a soldier who is far more than a sword brandishing brute. That said, he does angry very well; he’s so intimidating as a thoroughly pissed off newly-elected senator unable to engage in – or even injure the idea of – winning the hearts and minds of the dirty masses that he had me agreeing with him about this “us and them” business.

Although he does a damn good job of trying to steal it, this isn’t entirely Hiddleston’s show. Deborah Findlay is wonderfully, almost sinisterly, controlling as Caius’ overbearing, power lusty mother Volumnia who discovers the hard way that second hand heroism is great until your son gets kicked out of Rome. Shakespeare’s comedy characters are sometimes the least funny people in his plays, happily in Mark Gatiss’ Menenius Agrippa this is not the case. He manages to be languid and amusing, but also subtle and sensitive, avoiding caricature pitfalls. Hadley Fraser does a good job as Coriolanus’ nemesis Aufidius, playing up the lustiness of Shakespeare’s verse like a desperate man who knows he’s out of his depth (and league).

As Caius’ wife Virgilia, Borgen‘s Birgitte Hjort Sorensen has little to do but look sad, sew and stroke Coriolanus’ face when his mum isn’t looking, but not all of Shakespeare’s women are quite so one note. Over on the other side of the river at the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Eileen Atkins delivered a much more sedate, but no less moving evening  bringing some of Shakespeare’s more vibrant female characters to life with a one woman performance as legendary actress Ellen Terry.

The new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is every bit as captivating and arresting as Atkins’ performance and the candle lit theatre was the perfect setting for this wonderful, if too brief, production that highlighted the awesomeness of some of Shakespeare’s female characters that are so often dismissed (including by myself) as insipid and weak.

The quiet courage, quick wit and intelligence of, amongst others, Juliet, Desdemona and Beatrice was brought to mesmorising life by Atkins, delivering an amalgamation of two of Terry’s lectures on Shakespeare’s women while weaving into them some of their greatest speeches as well as dropping tantalising details of Terry’s glamorous life as a Victorian stage actress.

Shakespeare’s famous speeches were so comfortable in Atkins’ mouth and she was such an engaging presence that it was a real wrench when she backed slowly off the small stage to Ophelia’s final speech “Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies; good night, good night”.

But it’s always good to keep your audience wanting more; Shakespeare knew the secret so well that we’re still wanting more and more of him, lapping up his words four centuries since they were first written.

 by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre review: Henry VI, Part 1, Shakespeare’s Globe, London

Henry VI, Part 1 Shakespeare's Globe

Graham Butler as Henry VI in Henry VI, Part 1 at Shakespeare’s Globe

Henry VI, Part 1 is according to, ahem, Wikipedia, considered by those that know, to be Shakespeare’s ‘worst’ play. Of course, these things are relative. When you’re a genius, your worst tends to still be rather good. Shakespeare wrote 1, Henry VI in collaboration with Thomas Nashe (again, thanks Wiki) and despite its lack of poetry and some rather clunky rhyming couplets (exaggerated for comic effect at one point by Nigel Hastings as a hugely entertaining Duke of Burgundy when he highlights the awkwardness of the line, ‘Who craves a parley with the Burgundy’, we’ll blame Thomas for that one), it still beats an episode of EastEnders.

What it lacks in finesse, Henry VI, Part 1, the first part of an unofficial trilogy, makes up for with some kickass characters and some significant historical ground zeros. Unfortunately, the first of the big names arrives in a coffin as the play begins with the funeral of scourge of the French, Henry V. One of the many great things about Shakespeare’s Globe is its intimacy, especially for the groundlings who often find ourselves standing face-to-face with a distraught Talbot or shuffling out of the way of a soldier brandishing a plastic sword. This production opens with Henry’s funeral procession that walks slowly through the crowd as Mary Doherty as Queen Margaret, sings a haunting melody. It’s hugely affecting, you are as much a mourner as an audience member as we make way for the black coffin. The fall of the great king and the consequences of his early death are reflected in the youth and bewilderment of his son (play with a touching vulnerability by Graham Butler) who follows the coffin onto the stage and spends most of the first half reading a book, his chin wobbling in fear as his father’s legacy unravels in front of his innocent eyes.

There are more lively famous people from history stealing Harry 6’s thunder including car park internee Richard III’s father, Richard Plantagenet, who later becomes Duke of York played by Brendan O’Hea who was leek fan Fluellen in last year’s Globe’s Henry V and still retains that hint of engaging campness. Then there’s Joan of Arc, who starts off as lowly shepherd girl Joan La Pucelle and appears to be from Yorkshire played with vigour by Beatriz Romilly. Plus you get all the stuff about the beginning of the War of the Roses, which, according to Shakespeare took place around a rose bush where everyone tried to out-rose-pun each other.

Nick Bagnall’s production shares the same relaxed openness, easy charm and accessibility that have become characteristic of Globe productions. It’s a venue where despite the faux-Elizabethan architecture, minimal scenery and historically-appropriate costumes, Shakespeare feels more contemporary than many modern day versions of the Bard’s plays and one that can take his ‘worst’ play and conjure up a gripping, funny, poignant piece of theatre.

by Suzanne Elliott